Two years is a long time in politics and after being out of the government for the last 24 months, haredi parties United Torah Judaism and Shas are ready to strut back down the corridors of power come March 17.
The haredim have played key roles in governing coalitions of both the Left and Right in 11 out of 15 governments since 1981, but they suffered reverses throughout the duration of the 33rd government on some of their community’s critical concerns – among them cuts to yeshiva stipends, child support payments that disproportionately favored ultra-Orthodox families and the passage of a law for mandatory haredi conscription – after being kept out of the coalition at the insistence of Yair Lapid’s secular Yesh Atid party.
But the polls are predicting that Yesh Atid’s electoral power is set to be cut in half and with Lapid facing a possible spell in the opposition, both center-right and center-left coalitions would create favorable circumstances for Shas and UTJ. With less than six weeks to go until elections, current polling data suggests it will be virtually impossible for a center-left coalition to exclude them. At the same time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at the head of a center-right government, would likely welcome his former haredi allies – whom he deems much more reliable and loyal partners than Yesh Atid or Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party ever were.
In conversation with The Jerusalem Post, UTJ MK Ya’acov Litzman – one of the most senior haredi MKs, placed first on his faction’s electoral list – was quietly confident that whichever parliamentary bloc ends up forming the 34th government of Israel, the haredi parties would be a part of it.
At the same time, he ruled out sitting in any government with the haredi political enemy No. 1 and his Yesh Atid party.
“I am fiercely opposed to sitting with Yesh Atid in the next government,” declared Litzman.
“A person who shed our blood, harmed us with poverty, prevented families from having chicken on Shabbat, harmed us on everything – and that’s without even mentioning [issues of] Judaism, conversion, conscription, so many things – why should we sit with him? Are we friends?” Aside from the precise composition of the next government, Litzman acknowledged that there are several crucial issues on which haredi parties would demand concessions as a price for their entry into a new coalition.
“Clearly, we’re going to request changes, just like Lapid will request changes, just like [Koolanu leader Moshe] Kahlon will request changes, and the Zionist Union as well,” Litzman said.
What those specific changes are, however, remains to seen.
“I’m not going to say right now what we will request after the elections for the coming coalition, because I don’t want to be talked about by others who will say, ‘Oh look, they’re asking for these things...’ Unfortunately, when other parties make requests in coalition negotiations, it’s fine and legitimate, and when we request things we’re called extortionists. This is the kind of incitement that exists against us.”
“I’m not going to tell you what our agenda is, because we have been strict in not saying what we will request, and because I do not want the election campaign to focus on these things,” Litzman explained.
The veteran MK’s point is well illustrated by this week’s protest that saw a radical faction of the non-hassidic haredi world once again block major roads and intersections as they demonstrated against the arrest of haredi yeshiva students who failed to report for preliminary processing at IDF enlistment offices. As soon as the news hit the airwaves, Yesh Atid and Lapid lost no time in issuing a barrage of missives and comments to the media about how the party had succeeded in passing a law for mandatory haredi enlistment – although what was not mentioned was that the law will only be fully implemented in 2017.
This gives Litzman and his colleagues plenty of time and scope to insist on changes to the law as a condition for their entry into the coalition, which would moderate some of its provisions and ultimately reduce the number of haredi men who would have to leave the yeshiva study halls for the ranks of the IDF.
Regardless of Litzman’s reticence in discussing the issue, it is inconceivable that UTJ and Shas will not demand at least some measure of reform to the law for haredi conscription.
Equally, ameliorating the fierce cuts to the budget for yeshiva student stipends, slashed in half by the outgoing government, will also likely be a central goal of the two haredi parties, while UTJ in particular has always demanded the chairmanship of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee.
“I won’t say what we’ll demand, period,” said Litzman nonetheless. “Clearly, we will go with whoever is closer [to our demands], but I’m sure that any changes we will demand will be agreeable to all the major parties, and the Zionist Union as well. Whoever wants us and wants to form a government with us will agree to what we want.”
Although the political situation of UTJ and Shas in terms of their chances of entering the next coalition has improved, both parties are facing internal challenges to their political power from several quarters, although some are more significant than others.
For Shas, the departure of MK Eli Yishai threatens to rob the party of several thousand much-needed votes, while the radical group that protested the arrest of the yeshiva students this week – known as the Jerusalem Faction and worth as much as 70,000 votes, according to a poll conducted this week – has said it will not be voting for UTJ in the coming election.
Along with these threats are the growing challenges of the slow but noticeable change developing in the haredi community, in terms of the place and representation of the ultra-Orthodox men who seek to integrate into the workforce; as well as the role of women, who are often the breadwinners in haredi households. New government statistics show that 80 percent of haredi women are now employed, higher than the national average of 75 percent.
Since the general election was called, two separate campaigns have been started by haredi women – albeit on the more modern end of the community – demanding representation for haredi women in the Knesset.
Both Shas and UTJ refuse to allow women to stand for election, claiming that Jewish law prohibits female political leadership.
But Litzman insisted that there is no need for such representation, and argued that the haredi women who have begun these campaigns are not representative of mainstream haredi women.
“No haredi woman ever approached me to talk about the need for female representation, although if they had I would have given a negative answer – because this is the Jewish law for generations,” he said. “We represent the interests of women no less than and even better than others,” he continued, pointing to a recent poll published in Haaretz which showed that 89% of UTJ voters expressed satisfaction with their party, arguing that this figure would have included female voters.
One issue that campaigners for female haredi Knesset representation have highlighted is that of female health in the ultra-Orthodox sector.
In November, the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women held deliberations on the issue and, among other worrying statistics, heard that the rate of mortality for haredi women from breast cancer is double the national average.
The campaigns have both pointed out that none of the haredi MKs attended the session.
“[MK] Aliza Lavie [chairwoman of the Committee on the Status of Women] held this hearing for political purposes,” claimed Litzman, adding that he believed the breast cancer statistics to be “totally incorrect.”
“I dealt with female haredi health a lot when I was in the Health Ministry, and it is something that is addressed in haredi girls schools and seminars. We support these steps and mammogram testing, and there are no restrictions on this. This has nothing to do with any perceived need for female representation.”
Litzman also contended that he and his colleagues provide ample assistance to haredi men and women seeking to enter the workforce, and that UTJ remains the political home of such people.
“Anyone who wants to stop learning [in yeshiva] and find work we will help, but I will not encourage anyone to go to work, I will only encourage people to learn Torah, and I certainly won’t encourage anyone to leave yeshiva – because Torah is our life and our reason for existence.”
The MK said he was concerned about every vote from the haredi community, but argued that no party ever satisfies all of its electoral base.
“Of course, there are always people in every party who aren’t satisfied. You can’t satisfy everyone the whole time, but we have the support of the rabbis from the [non-hassidic] haredi Degel Hatorah [political movement] and from the Agudat Yisrael [hassidic political movement], and I am sure everyone will unite around us on Election Day at the voting booth, and that we will be successful,” he opined.
For now, Litzman would appear to be correct: UTJ is flying high in the polls, in which the party is frequently predicted to garner as many as eight Knesset seats in the coming elections – one more than they received in 2013, which itself was thought to be an impressive achievement.
And the haredi community’s faithful obedience to the instructions of its rabbis, who urge their public to vote as a matter of religious obligation, coupled with the political reality in which UTJ and Shas can provide a bloc of much-needed support for a governing coalition, means it is highly likely that Litzman and his colleagues will play a crucial role in the unfolding of the political map after the general election.
What the price for securing this political support will be remains to be seen.